Expat champions tastes, roots of rural Japan

by Magdalena Osumi

Staff Writer

American Justin Potts, 33, is more fascinated with Japan’s rural countryside than most Japanese and vexed by their lack of appreciation for its natural beauty, agricultural bounty and artistic cuisine.

Donning a pair of Japanese traditional split-toe tabi boots, Potts’ love for the nation’s agriculture led him to work at Umari Inc., which operates Roppongi Nouen, a restaurant in Tokyo that offers Japanese fare cooked with selected produce from farmers nationwide.

A three-minute walk from Roppongi Station, the restaurant also hosts events where farmers talk about their produce and daily lives to spark interest among customers.

“It’s a place where performance happens,” said Potts, a native of Bothell, Washington, north of Seattle.

As the sole foreign employee at Umari, a Tokyo-based brand strategist that advises businesses and governments, Potts’ task is to promote Japanese culture overseas.

Starting in May, Potts will head a new project involving Japanese and Italian companies and participate in Milano Expo 2015 in Italy to tout Japan’s cuisine.

Dubbed “Peace Kitchen,” the project will allow participants to learn about Japan’s down-to-earth home-cooking, including how miso pastes and soy sauces are used.

Potts first became intrigued with rural Japan when he visited a sake brewery in Chiba Prefecture in 2011.

“It’s not about sake. It’s more about the concept around fermentation, how we coexist with things and a philosophy related to that, how that ties to building communities, working with one another,” he said. “It’s about who you share it with, the time you spend with people around that food — something you can’t buy in Tokyo at any price.”

But that was years after he first came to Japan in 2004 to participate in a four-month study program in Osaka. After four months, Potts, who was about to graduate from Washington State University, assumed he would never come back to Japan.

“But there was something interesting about Japan and its culture,” he said.

Potts returned in 2005 as an English-language teacher for a private school that dispatches teachers to kindergartens in southeast Hyogo Prefecture.

But during the year he worked there, he realized that without learning the language, he wouldn’t be able to communicate with Japanese or understand the culture on a deeper level.

“I didn’t try to learn the language, to acclimate,” Potts recalled. “I was just traveling.”

So when he came to Tokyo in 2007, he was determined to master the language and immerse himself in the culture.

Now fluent, Potts recalls that it was the right decision to get outside his comfort zone, where he was speaking English 12 hours a day, and make a greater effort to communicate better with the people around him.

“It’s fine if you’re traveling, it’s fine if you’re studying abroad for a few months and you don’t have a lot of responsibility,” he said. “But when it comes to living and thriving, being able to order a beer or rent a video is one thing, but on a personal level, aside from Japanese or non-Japanese, you want to make connections and communicate.”

To learn Japanese, he spent the early mornings chatting with old men and old ladies in the neighborhood before heading to work as an intern at a Tokyo publisher where he wrote for and edited an English-language magazine.

Potts hopes to share his passion for Japanese culture by engaging people from different backgrounds — rural or urban, Japanese and non-Japanese — and hopefully develop new business opportunities.

One of Umari’s projects, International Terakoya, is aimed at bringing people together to learn about Japanese culture. Named after the private elementary schools that were common in temples in the Edo Period (1603-1867), International Terakoya holds workshops on sake, tea, traditional Japanese broth and other delights — a good opportunity for families to get together, Potts noted.

He said he wants to provide a venue where “people can exist together in the same space, where they can engage in something.”

In another example, Potts organized a tour to New Zealand, where agricultural tourism is popular, for Japanese farmers interested in launching related businesses.

“There are opportunities for everyone,” he said, adding that it’s vital to give people who are motivated and driven a stage upon which to work, produce and share ideas.

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